Asylum seeker in North Korea now wants out

Letters back to Japan indicate it is not the `Shangri-la’ that the woman had been seeking.

What to make of the bizarre case of a young Japanese woman who sought asylum in North Korea? Foreign Ministry officials admit they are perplexed, having little to go on in the week or so since the case surfaced.

North Korean authorities contacted the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Oct. 27 with a bombshell announcement: A female tourist had entered North Korea through a third country and applied for asylum.

Aside from the Red Army hijackers of a Japan Air Lines passenger jet to Pyongyang in 1970, this is the first case of a Japanese national seeking asylum in North Korea, according to the Foreign Ministry.

It now appears the woman is disillusioned with the country and wants to come home.

Pyongyang has provided a name, which matches that of a woman who approached Japan’s Consulate-General in Shenyang, northeastern China, in April seeking advice about how to “defect to North Korea.”

The woman’s name, age and appearance fit.

It seems highly probable that the woman is a 29-year-old former restaurant employee from Osaka.

Judging from five letters that arrived from North Korea last month, and reading between the lines, she is being detained as an illegal immigrant in Pyongyang.

Friends of hers in Osaka said she began talking about her desire to live in North Korea about two years ago.

Last year, she took off in June to spend a week in her “Shangri-la.”

In letters addressed to her former employer, the woman left Japan and headed for China around Aug. 19 and entered North Korea on Aug. 24.

She states that she has been staying at a hotel in Pyongyang since Aug.27.

“I am with my female handler 24 hours a day,” she wrote, adding that she spends most of her time inside her room, watching television-except for morning and evening strolls.

The first letter, dated Sept. 21, hints at her long-term plans: “I shall attend a Korean language school for a year, and then become a translator. I may also teach Japanese.”

Just two weeks later, in a letter dated Oct. 5, she sounds pensive. “I told the people here on Oct. 2 that I want to return to Japan. But I am not sure what is going to happen. I wonder if the Japanese government is even aware that I am in North Korea.”

She touches upon her entry to the impoverished country at times.

In a letter dated Sept. 23, she mentions, “The people who are involved in immigration work are all very gentle and kind.”

She never explains why she entered North Korea, nor her quest for asylum.

In another twist, officials of the Aum Shinrikyo sect now known as Aleph disclosed that a former member with the same name officially left the group in October 2001.

According to Aleph, she told her Aum handlers: “I was being pressured by public safety officials to spy on cult activities and leak insider information.”

The Foreign Ministry says its hands are tied until Pyongyang provides positive identification of the woman.

“Only then can we begin the necessary paperwork on behalf of the central government, including a demand for custody,” said a ministry official.


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Asahi Shimbun, Japan
Nov. 8, 2003
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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 8, 2003.
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